- The French Revolution was inspired by the British political system and the American Revolution and it was shaped by local grievances.
- The best-known slogan that expressed how the French felt was the slogan “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!” though this was simplistic and did not span all ideas of the revolution.
- Enlightenment and political concepts such as popular sovereignty and constitutionalism, which aimed to create a more effective system of government, were some of the things that sparked the French Revolution.
- The early part of the revolution was also motivated by the need to protect natural rights; individual rights and freedoms that could not be ignored or removed by law or government.
- Anti-clericalism was another reason why the revolution occurred. They wanted to reform the Catholic Church, particularly the actions of its clergy, and reduce political influence, interference and corruption.
The French Revolution was motivated and shaped by distinct ideas. French Revolutionary ideas drew heavily on the political philosophy of the Enlightenment and the writings of the philosophers. They also came from other political systems. Many French revolutionaries had observed British government and society. They admired its constitutional basis, its separation of powers and its advocacy for individual rights and freedoms. The American Revolution (1775-89) was also an inspiration for the French reformers with a working example of revolution and a successfully implemented constitution. People had grievances, particularly in the 18th century. Some of the key ideas and ideologies are summarised below.
Liberty, as per the 18th century, can be defined as freedom from oppression and particularly oppression by the state or government. The most common form of oppression during that time was sealed orders from the king. These orders had a number of functions, but their most common use was to detain and imprison individuals without a fair trial. Honore Mirabeau and Voltaire are some notable figures imprisoned by lettres de cachet for including or disgracing the royal family and for defamatory writings, respectively. Oppression was also in the form of censorship of publications containing criticisms of the king, the aristocracy or the Church. The Ancien Régime also used torture to deal with its opponents, and though it declined in the late 1700s, it was formally abolished in May 1788.
Social stratification was the main problem here. The social structure of the Ancien Régime was uneven and unfair. Some people were exempt from paying taxes while others had heavy taxes imposed on them. The citizens of the Third Estate wanted equality, though some wanted greater levels of equality than others. The rising bourgeoisie wanted to be at the same political and social level as the Second Estate. They wanted a meritocracy, that is a society where rank and status were defined by ability and achievement, rather than birthright and privilege. They drew inspiration from the newly formed United States, where a revolution had transferred the government to deserving people of talent and ability. The bourgeoisie was divided about sharing political equality with the lower ranks of the Third Estate, however. They wanted voting to remain a privilege of the propertied classes.
A slogan ‘fraternité’, which translated means ‘brotherhood’, epitomised this. This slogan sought to make people believe that the nation’s citizens were bound together in solidarity. Nationalism was combined with love and concern for one’s fellow citizens. The fraternity was considered the most abstract, idealistic and unachievable of all revolutionary ideals. It was more pronounced in the early phase of the revolution when the new government was carrying out positive reforms like the August Decrees and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Many witnesses in 1789-90 told of how the Three Estates cooperated and worked together to improve the nation. As the revolution continued and political cracks emerged, this focus on unity and brotherhood quickly evaporated.
In the years prior to the revolution, most kings and governments claimed their authority came from God, a concept called divine right monarchy. This idea was a major problem for the Enlightenment. Popular sovereignty aimed at solving this problem with the idea that governments derive their authority from the consent and support of the people and not necessarily from God. It was based, in part, on the idea of a ‘social contract’ between individuals and their government, a concept advanced by writers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Popular sovereignty allowed people to replace a government if they felt mistreated. This principle was used to justify the American and French revolutions. The idea of popular sovereignty clashed with Emmanuel Sieyès’ What is the Third Estate? because they offered a different opinion.
The Third Estate pledged to remain in the Assembly until France had a Constitution after they separated from the Estates General in June 1789 in a meeting held in a nearby tennis court. This desire for a Constitution was a feature of the American and French revolutions. They saw the Constitution as a written framework that defined the structures and powers of government. They wanted a Constitution as they were frustrated with the failures and broken promises of kings and ministers. They wanted to do away with absolutism and arbitrary decision making and believed a constitutional government would do this. It would prevent abuses of power and create a government that worked for all. For a working example, the French revolutionaries looked to the United States Constitution, which was drafted in 1787 and enacted the following year. This Constitution created a democratically elected republic, with the branches of government and their powers clearly articulated. It also embodied Enlightenment political concepts like popular sovereignty, natural rights and the separation of powers.
Enlightenment also led to the emergence of the concept of natural rights, particularly in the writings of John Locke. Natural rights can be thought of as rights and freedoms bestowed on all people, regardless of whatever laws and governments they live under. Thomas Jefferson, an American writer, described natural rights as “inalienable rights” because people cannot live without them. John Locke believed there were three natural rights: life, liberty and property. All individuals were entitled to live in safety, to be free from oppression, to acquire property and have it safe from crimes against them. It is the responsibility and the duty of government, Locke wrote, to uphold and protect the natural rights of individuals. The first phase of the French Revolution was dominated by the liberal bourgeoisie, who were keen on protecting natural rights. This was highlighted by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, passed by the National Constituent Assembly in August 1789.
The role of the Catholic Church in society and government was a bone of contention for many. The Catholic clergy was openly criticised by many philosophes and French revolutionaries. They condemned the wealth and profiteering of the Catholic Church, its exemption from taxation, its political influence, its suppression of new ideas and its neglect of the French people. Emmanuel Sieyès, a man of the lower clergy, was frustrated by corruption, venality and lack of accountability within the church. Most of those who criticised the church and its higher clergy were religiously neutral. They were not atheists, nor were they opposed to religion. They were anti-clerical and wanted to reform the clergy and limit its social and political power. Anti-clericalism shaped several revolutionary policies including the seizure of church lands, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in July 1790 and attempts to create a state religion.